CFI’s Sky Kings and Heavenly Queens: Jiang Wen/姜文

Welcome to Sky Kings and Heavenly Queens, an ongoing series of profiles designed to introduce you to China’s most successful actors and actresses. The rapid emergence of Chinese popular culture over the past couple of decades initially moved faster than the country’s ability to develop its own pop culture talent:  film stars and singers often had to be adopted from Hong Kong and Taiwan, or were Chinese-American ringers who found more opportunity than anything available in the US. 

More recently, a couple of generations of extraordinary homegrown talent has taken its rightful place in the firmament, establishing themselves as household names with the same kind of power and resonance, and followings as large & devoted as those of any contemporary Western luminary.  Naturally, the interest of Hollywood in the Chinese market has increasingly turned producers’ attention to these stars.  In these profiles, we want to take the empty phrase “Big in China,” and replace it with some of the specific and noteworthy achievements and potentialities of these women and men.  They’re people worth knowing about.

  • Age: 53
  • Career box office earnings: RMB 2.8 billion (US$404.95 million)
  • Type: Beijing badass. The steel of Clint Eastwood married to the intelligence and subversive wit of Marlon Brando
  • Best known for: Let The Bullets Fly; In the Heat of the Sun; Red Sorghum
  • Contact details:
    Manager/Producing Partner: 朱中原/Patrick Zhu
    Beijing Bu Yi Le Hu Cultural and Communications Ltd.
    Beijing Working People’s Cultural Palace, Beijing, China
    Postal Code: 100006
    Tel: +86-10-6525 5065
  • Personal Manager for International Productions:
    Steven Squilante
    Leeding Management
    11878 La Grange Ave
    2nd Fl
    Los Angeles, CA 90025 USA
    +1 424 273 1313
  • US Agent
    Mike Simpson/Andrew Finkelstein
    WME Entertainment
    9601 Wilshire Blvd
    3rd Fl
    Beverly Hills, CA 90210
    +1 310 285 9000 phone
    +1 310 248 2020 fax
  • Salary (estimated): RMB 30 million
  • English language ability: excellent, including reading.

When Rogue One: A Star Wars Story opens this week in North American cinemas, moviegoers will add a new character to the Star Wars pantheon: Baze Malbus, an assassin enmeshed in a plot to steal the plans for the Death Star. The visage of the actor playing Malbus may not immediately resonate with that audience, but when China film fans get a look on January 6, 2017, they will see one of Chinese cinema’s most recognizable faces: actor, director, and producer Jiang Wen.

Like the die-hard New Yorkers one frequently meets who turn out to have come originally from somewhere else, Jiang, the most deeply Beijing of all Beijingers was born in nearby Tangshan. Even so, the city’s favorite almost-native son embodies the Beijing character: arrogant, aggressive, smart, and able to navigate the swiftly moving political currents of the capital’s culture scene.

Jiang’s work has earned him both critical acclaim and record-smashing success. 2010’s raucous and corrosive spaghetti eastern, Let The Bullets Fly, which Jiang wrote, directed and starred in, inaugurated China’s modern mega-box office era, earning RMB 674 million ($110 million). The first local film to break the $100 million mark in China, it planted a flag in territory previously believed the exclusive domain of imported Hollywood blockbusters.

“He’s the most outstanding actor of his generation,” states Albert Lee, the Hong Kong-based producer of Bullets and CEO of Emperor Motion Pictures, who has collaborated on several films with Jiang.

Jiang, who will turn 54 on January 5, was born at the right time. His adolescent years coincided with the end of the Cultural Revolution, allowing his generation to go to university without delay, and Jiang secured a spot at Beijing’s prestigious Central Academy of Drama.

His initial turn in 1986’s Hibiscus Town showed immediate promise. Appearing with China’s first post-Deng Xiaoping-era femme fatale, Liu Xiaoqing, with whom he later had a torrid public relationship, Jiang played a political prisoner who pretends to go crazy in order to spare himself further trouble and hardship.

His break-out role, however, came the following year opposite Gong Li in 1987’s Red Sorghum, directed by Zhang Yimou. All involved would go on to greater things (including a Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival for Zhang and the 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature for Mo Yan, the author upon whose novel the film is based), and the film is still cited as the beginning of China’s contemporary cinema renaissance.

Jiang then segued to household name when he took the lead in A Beijinger in New York, a 25-part, 1993 TV series depicting the struggles of a new wave of Chinese immigrants in the United States. Appearing at a time when most Chinese were restricted from travel, the show’s basic concept of life in New York, even in adverse conditions, was almost inconceivably fantastic. Because native characteristics are nowhere more evident than when thrown into relief in foreign locales, Jiang’s flinty, Beijinger anti-hero persona was sealed by his role in the show.

Another Beijing badass, the artist Ai Weiwei, was living in New York then, and he and Jiang became friends. Pleasing as it is to imagine them raising hell in downtown bars, Ai’s strong memories of the time involve going with Jiang to Tower Records in the East Village to buy tapes of classic films that Jiang would study obsessively. “At that time, he was only a very famous actor,” Ai says. “But I knew he was going to be a great director. I’ve never met anybody else as cinematically intelligent and aware.”

The following year, Jiang made his directorial debut, adapting the punky Beijing “hooligan” novelist Wang Shuo’s In the Heat of the Sun, a coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of the Cultural Revolution. Jiang also narrated the film, finding a tone that added both clarity and levity to the events depicted, and leading to a closing scene that movingly contrasts life in China with what it would become.

Like Marlon Brando, Jack Nicholson and a very small number of other great actors in history, Jiang Wen is also a bona fide intellectual and counts several of Beijing’s leading writers and editors among his friends. All of the films he has directed have their basis in a literary source, with serious ideas underpinning even the most outrageous scenarios.

After a big-budget role as the emperor in The Emperor’s Shadow, a film he publicly detested, (“How does the daughter of the emperor fall in love with a traitor?” he once asked me during an interview and then declined to speak further on the subject), he returned to the director’s chair for 2000’s Devils on the Doorstep, a look at the lives of two prisoners of war in post-WWII China, one of whom is Japanese. China’s censors were unhappy with the film’s humanization of the Japanese prisoner, and both the film and Jiang were banned, despite Devils having won a special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and the admiration of directors such as Luc Besson and Steven Soderbergh.

The ensuing seven-year ban that Devils earned him pushed Jiang back into acting, playing subtle changes on his badass persona in emotionally ambiguous roles in films that mixed comedy with darker intimations, such as Lu Chuan’s acclaimed The Missing Gun (2002), and Zhang Yuan’s Green Tea (2003).

Jiang finally directed again in 2007 with The Sun Also Rises, an arthouse work of magic realism, interweaving a quartet of rural stories.

In 2009, he did his duty, appearing in The Founding of the Republic, produced by China Film Group for the 60th anniversary of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, before going for and attaining box office glory with his spaghetti western-influenced Let The Bullets Fly, also starring Beijinger Ge You and Hong Kong megastar Chow Yun-fat. The film’s blend of explosive, stylized action, and cartoonish black comedy—like the Coen Brothers directing a Stephen Chow movie—struck a bullseye with Chinese moviegoers just as the national expansion of cinemas had reached critical mass, creating an undreamed-of success. At the same time, the film’s depiction of lawlessness and corruption during China’s 1920s warlord era could also be read as a satire of modern China’s embrace of capitalist excess: Jiang had figured out how to be a badass in front of and behind the camera.

The ban on Jiang directing had been “devastating,” says Ai Weiwei. “It came at the peak of his productivity—he had to learn lessons from it. He had to appear to be entertaining but to really have a strong message.”

A loosely connected 2014 sequel, Gone With the Bullets, was less successful, a kitchen-sink of stylized excess and genre references that bears a superficial resemblance to Baz Luhrman, but if the film was more inconsistent, Jiang himself remained a commanding, hardboiled presence. The first Bullets movie had brought Hollywood calling, and Gone was partly financed by Columbia Pictures. He took on WME as his agents, and an LA-based manager to work with him on films for the international market

Jiang first started learning English in New York, during A Beijinger in New York, and by various accounts, he has continued to practice over the years and now speaks and reads excellently, enjoying wordplay and puns, although Rogue One, his first role in English, and his first appearance in a US production, credits two dialogue coaches. With Rogue One poised to be a one-off and not a new Star Wars series, the experience looks more to be something of an experiment than the start of some new Hollywood period of his career.

Indeed, even as his US reps start to field more inquiries, he has made it clear to them that he remains resolutely and primarily interested in Chinese stories and films, and after a few rounds of PR glad-handing, he skipped the film’s premiere last week to attend to preproduction and second unit shooting for his next auteurial undertaking, a kung fu/action film set in Beijing in 1930, based on Shadow Fighter (侠隐) by the China-born, New York-based novelist Zhang Beihai, on which he is reteaming with Albert Lee and Emperor. Principal photography is set to commence in January with a planned release in 2018.

This will be a big-budget undertaking on the level of the Bullets films, but Lee admires Jiang’s independent spirit. “He says that he won’t just do mega-budget films,” Lee says, and indeed, Little Woman, another proposed film for which Jiang was recently seeking financing was planned to be shot for $3.6 million. Adroitly balancing commerce and art, absurdism, stoicism and flashes of emotion, Jiang is a unique, uniquely Chinese talent, someone to watch wherever he goes.